A laser prepares to document a Union Station model train layout

Wherever two of the state’s most elaborate model train displays end up, operators can thank the University of Colorado Denver’s Center of Preservation Research (CoPR) for documenting every detail in their original home — historic Union Station.

Union Station is being renovated into a retail, lodging and transportation hub. While the clubs that operate a pair of model tracks in the basement expected to resume their miniature rail exploits when the renovation wraps up in 2014, those hopes are now in doubt.

The “Colorado Midland Railway” layout, operated by the Denver Society of Model Railroaders, covers about 6,500 square feet and has been growing, railroad tie by tie, bridge by bridge, for nearly 80 years. In another basement room the Platte Valley & Western Model Railroad club began setting up a layout, now 1,000 square feet, more than 30 years ago.

Julia Ausloos, a graduate student in preservation and architecture in the College of Architecture and Planning, of which CoPR is a part, said the exhibits were a well-kept secret. “Nobody knew about them,” she said. “These clubs didn’t have marketing.”

CoPR was enlisted to document the two train layouts to provide a precise scale and three-dimensional catalogue of their every detail. “Each portion of each of the models is like an actual landscape in Colorado,” Ausloos said. “They have different models of different historic things all around Colorado. It’s kind of cool because they did all their historic research before they built all that stuff.”

Students used state-of-the-art Leica LiDar 3D scanning technology to document the model layouts. The same scanners have been used to document the Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming, the Heart Mountain internment camp and a historic ranch in the San Luis Valley.

Usually the technology is used on much larger landscapes or buildings, Ausloos said. The train layouts were conversely small and dense, taking upward of 45 minutes per scan location. “This was kind of a unique project because we were testing the limits of the scanner and capturing something so small,” she said.

Because much work needs to be done to bring the old station up to code — and requiring removal of the tracks during the work — “our task was to document the tracks so that there’s a record of what the model train sets look like,” Ausloos said.

Dana Crawford, CEO of the Union Station Alliance, had hoped originally that the trains could remain post-renovation — and even be spotlighted for the public. But she said last month that those plans are on hold because building code issues were causing difficulty for retaining the tracks.

“During this period of interruption, we knew that we needed to (document the model train layouts),” Crawford said. “We needed to know what was there. The technology that (CoPR) used was pretty fantastic. It involved imaging. It’s a very modern technique.”

The scanner uses a series of lasers to create a three-dimensional image of a structure, which can then be overlaid with photographs to help reconstruct historic buildings. CoPR students and faculty work with organizations like CyArk as well as the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Historical Society in their research. Mike Nulty, documentation coordinator at CoPR, oversaw the Union Station train scanning project.

“With the scanner it’s like we cut the ceiling off and are able to give an overview look that otherwise you wouldn’t have,” Ausloos said.

Kat Vlahos, director of the Center of Preservation Research, said the Union Station project illustrates how CoPR is a resource for communities around the state. “We engage students on almost everything we do,” she said. “We’re educators and we focus on project-based education. The way we’re able to teach and learn is by being out in the world trying to solve real problems with real people. We explore how to tell the story of a place, using history, drawings, visuals and words, to understand what makes it significant and important.”

Ausloos hopes that, through CoPR’s work, the layouts can be reconstructed to allow more people to be captivated by the magic of model trains. “Volunteers of these clubs have spent thousands of hours working on these really cool models,” she said. “We’re documenting it so we have an accurate model of how it was before it was ever touched. .. Being able to make it more accessible to the public … it’s a cool project.”

At this point, railroad buffs will have to wait and see whether the thousands of feet of track, winding through small towns and towering mountains, will again carry miniature locomotives in the bowels of Union Station.

CU in the City logo